‘Vulnerability as Power’ : Romalyn Ante speaking with Alice Hiller on Nursing in the NHS & finding the words to be heard as a nurse and a poet writing between the UK and the Philippines.

Two years ago, I met Romalyn Ante for the first time at the Jerwood Arvon Totleigh Barton retreat, in Devon, run by the inimitable Joe Bibby. The medieval building, with its thatched roof, and creaking, wooden floors, lies at the end of a long drive, encircled by green hills and fields.   Neither of us had ever stayed anywhere like it before. We were there to meet our mentor Pascale Petit, and our two fellow poetry mentees – now sisters-in-words, Seraphima Kennedy and Yvonne Reddick – for five days’ work together, alongside the brilliant fiction and drama mentees, and their mentors Tim Crouch and Jacob Ross.

All of us talked, work-shopped, performed, ate and walked together, laying the foundations of friendships which have continued to deepen and grow. Later that same year, Romalyn become the joint winner of the 2017 Manchester Poetry Prize, won the 2017 Platinum Creative Futures Award, and was selected for Primers 3 with Sarala Estruch and Aviva Dautch. In 2018 she was awarded the Poetry London Prize – judged by Kwame Dawes – for her poem ‘Names’.

Romalyn Ante can be viewed reading ‘Names’ here.

roma reading poetry london
Romalyn Ante reading ‘Names’ at the Poetry London autumn launch at Kings Place.

For those who don’t know her personally, it can seem as if Romalyn’s  success has come out of nowhere. In fact, the poems which have brought her recognition are rooted in her childhood in the Philippines, when Tagalog was her primary language, and her grandfather told her their ancient myths during power cuts. Having started writing in the Philippines, Romalyn continued when she followed her nurse mother to the UK when she was 16, to complete her studies, and train as a nurse herself.

‘Names’, Romalyn’s Poetry London prize-winning poem carries this journey within its stanzas. Romalyn and I spoke about how it came into being on the evening of the prize reading at King’s Place in London, and again the next morning over breakfast in my kitchen, before she took the train back to Wolverhampton. We both share the desire to represent our experiences on behalf of our communities, and make them available to the wider world.

Remembering how she came to write ‘Names’, as we talked, Romalyn looked back on growing up in the Philippines, and her experiences of migrating to, and making her adult life in, the UK. We swapped notes on our different journeys into poetry, the value of Pascale Petit’s mentoring to us as writers, what it is like to be with someone who is dying, why loss can become a catalyst for growth, and how we let our words find their shapes.

Ahead of launching my first ‘saying the difficult thing’ interview, with Shivanee Ramlochan, on this blog, Romalyn has generously given me permission to upload our conversation:

 

AH: You told me that you first heard the music that words can carry in English when you were growing up in the Philippines, but that your work is also deeply nourished by its oral culture?

RA: My uncles and aunties would play music every night. My uncle always played the guitar over a table full of gin. Sometimes my Dad would come home and join them. They would sing in English. They would sing American love songs or American pop rock. I think that is how I learnt the music of words. I never read any English poetry when I was growing up, except for my high school diploma. I read literature in Tagalog. At home, my family didn’t really read many books. What got me into storytelling was my grandad – every time there was a blackout. We call it a brown-out. The brown-outs over there don’t just last for less than a minute. They last for an entire night or maybe an entire day. Every time there was a brownout, and say it was at night, my grandad – who is a barber by day, and was a porter or kargador when he was younger – would gather us on the terrace. He would light a candle and all of us would just sit there and he would tell stories about Filipino mythology in Tagalog. All this folklore, legends. My Grandad didn’t realise that he was a storyteller. During the day, and for everyone, he was just a barber who never even finished primary school. Looking back now – all those experiences fed in. I used to think I wasn’t well read.

AH: Your sources were different – oral stories, told myths. You actually had this extraordinary deep, rich background. Even if people read those stories as adults, it’s completely different to being told them as children.

RA: When you are a child, you are like ‘wow’ – and your imagination is going berserk. But I really agree with you. There was also a point when I asked myself if I should get a Poetry MA – because everyone seemed to have an MA and everyone seemed to know what they were doing. I’m thankful that I didn’t because I feel it might have marred the way I write poems now. I think that intuition is very important. I’m glad that I didn’t take any formal training in writing and got what I needed to learn from my mentors who have been extremely helpful.

AH: You told me you started writing initially to process your nursing experience – without a thought of publication?

RA: It started as journal entries. Then I realised that there were some words in my journal that sounded nice, almost like music. I think that really kick-started me into writing poetry.

AH: I remember that in my own work. You come across something that has an energy which you didn’t give it.

RA: It’s as if those couple of words, or let’s say that line, is very alive. It says: ‘There’s something here. You need to explore me. You need to get me out of this journal and put me somewhere I can be fully alive.’ It’s a breathing creature. Pascale Petit said that as well when we were being mentored. She said don’t give up on your poem even, if you think it’s bad, if you see a draft that has that one sentence that’s alive. You can explore it more.

AH: You must have been aware that what you were writing as a nurse wasn’t being written by anybody else?

RA: Kwame Dawes said yesterday, ‘I’ve known a lot of doctor poets but never known a nurse poet.’ I hoped something good will come from that.

AH: It has already. Primers – the CFLA Platinum Award. The Manchester Poetry Prize. The Saboteur Award for your pamphlet, Rice and Rain. I’m writing about sexual abuse in childhood. I just read Paper Cuts by Stephen Bernard. It was really helpful to recognise patterns that I found in my own life. You are the first person writing contemporary poetry about nursing. You had to open the conversation.

RA: Yes. I want my poems to be accessible for everyone.

AH: That’s very important to me. I’m trying to write for everyone who is making their life in the aftermath of abuse. I don’t want there to be any barrier to walking into my work – and that’s a political decision on my part.

RA: Yes, definitely. Can you explore that?

AH: Society has always turned away and denied sexual abuse. I’m standing up to say what it feels like to be sexually abused in childhood, how you try and operate afterwards – the fear, the bewilderment, the difficult teenage behaviour that people who have been abused tend to manifest. I stand before people and say: ‘All these things are in me.’ I don’t want to be the cardboard cut-out of a smiling child. You don’t want to be the cardboard cut-out of the smiling nurse. We want to say: ‘This is us in our wholeness.’

RA: We are putting ourselves in the centre of an arena, naked and saying: ‘This is the real me.’ After that, hopefully someone in the stadium or in the benches would stand up and say, ‘I am also this. I can relate to you, we are the same,’ and someone over there will stand up and say, ‘This is me – and I can relate to you as well.’ And that is what we are doing. We are ‘daring greatly’ – which is a phrase from the writer Brené Brown who believes in the power of showing others your vulnerability.

AH: Aged 23, you realised you had something to say to a wider audience. There was an energy in your words that you wanted to develop. How did that come about?

RA: I found Vera Brittain, who was a nurse in World War I. That was the first English poetry book I read in the UK. She wrote about her nursing career. Her fiancé went to the war and never came back. I read her poems. I felt their raw emotion. I was really inspired that it still rung true to me –  her sense of loss. That was when I started writing in a poem form rather than journaling.

AH: How did you come across Vera Brittain’s work?

RA: I was browsing in a book store. The title captivated me. Because You Died. [Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, edited by Mark Bostridge]. The title was such a heart-breaking thing. I had a patient who had just died. Every single time a patient – a person, a human being – died in front of me, that changed something in me.

AH: I was with my first husband, Falcon, when he died. To see a body that is alive and has a being in it become just the container of that self, is incredible. Such a small margin between life and death. There is a one-breath margin.

RA: With repeated deaths of patients who I got to know, and who I got to be close to – every death I felt took something away from me, but it also gave me something. After I found Vera Brittain, I joined a local writing group. We met every month and then it came to a point that the facilitator left, and then I had to take over for two years. At that point, I was working as a dialysis nurse and my brother was having dialysis. I left the writing workshop, and then after everything settled down, I said to myself, ‘I need to do something for my writing.’ In 2016 I went on my very first Arvon Course with Ian Duhig and Mimi Khalvati. I had been working on my poems for three years. 2016 was when I also had the courage to really submit work.  I first submitted to the CFLA in late 2016. I got commended and I was very chuffed because that was my first recognition. Late 2016, I submitted my pamphlet to V Press, then in 2017 I got the news that V Press would like to publish my pamphlet. I also had an email from Joe Bibby saying that I was shortlisted for the Jerwood Arvon Mentoring scheme.

AH: And Pascale Petit, our shared Arvon mentor, was your lift-off?

pascale freeword centre
Pascale Petit reading from her forthcoming collection ‘Tiger Girl’ at the Free Word Centre

RA: Pascale was like a cannon blasting me into the sky. She is so generous, isn’t she? She asked what kind of goals do you have? It is very easy for people to assume that I am a nurse, I am a migrant, I am telling my own story. What might not be so obvious straightaway is that it’s not just my story. It happens to every single Filipino who comes here as a nurse. It happens to any migrant – not even Filipino – who leaves their country to work somewhere else. So even though this is so personal to me, it is not just my story. It is a story of people who had to leave something behind. You can’t moan. You have no choice. I want my experience to be able to evoke something that others can relate to. When I was reading Kwame’s Report [for the Poetry London Clore Prize], I was really touched. I didn’t expect Kwame would relate to ‘Names’ so much. He said it was ‘the poem that moved him’. That is his guiding principle. I thought OK, this is it. Even though you weren’t necessarily a nurse – it moved you to the point that you trusted in my work enough to choose it. He felt that something was happening here and something important was being said here – and this is what I need to do, really.

AH: ‘Names’ is a poem of questioning your sense of your own identity. You look at your beginning as a child of your parents, of the adjustments you had to make when your mother had to go abroad to work, and what her departure meant for your identity. You name your other mothers, the mothers that followed your birth mother when she went abroad to work – the supplementary mothers. Many of us are cared for by more than our birth mother. Other than health professionals, most of us only visit hospitals and nursing settings at a time of crisis. Because hospital is your place of work, you have a different way of seeing it. So, in a sense in those poems you are not only speaking for nurses who have to come to England from other countries, but you are also speaking –

RA: – for anyone who cared and for anyone who has lost, I think. We have all lost a loved one, a friend, a country, an identity.poetry london poster

 

AH: One of the questions that you bring up in ‘Names’ is, how do we survive in the face of loss? How do we remake ourselves? How can it be that loss doesn’t diminish us? How can we live creatively with loss, continue to grow in the face of loss –

RA: – so how can loss be a start of our own growth?

AH: I think that’s really valuable. The poem ends on a hopeful note. It ends on a note of acceptance of loss and change and still finding energy to go forward.

RA: Yes definitely. So, the last lines are: ‘I have the first syllables of my parents’ names, / that is why I am not scared. // I can trek the mountain of Makulot my father’s rifle hanging from my back. // I can carry myself / not how someone carries a cytotoxic drug / but how my mother hooks, / with her finger, a drain bottle / with blood clots / the weight of gemstones.’ The final lines are hopeful – an appreciation of life, the life you know that is going on, and the lives that were lost. It’s hopeful but it’s almost in a tone – for me, when I was writing it – of convincing myself that I’m strong. I’m strong because I’ve had so much pain before – so I can do it. It’s an act of trying to convince yourself of something that may not be necessarily true – you may not be as strong as you think. And I think that is a very normal, that’s a very human thing to do, you know. There are loads of times in our lives we have to convince ourselves.

AH: You were telling me about your grandparents?

RA: My grandad is actually half Spanish and half Filipino. His father left him. He had to bring himself up. He had to be a shoe shiner as a kid, and he worked as a kargador, which is like a porter in the market. After that he married my grandma, who worked at a dress shop in the market, and then he became a barber. I think my grandad finished Grade 3 – when you are an eight-year-old.

AH: Can he read and write?

RA: Yes. It’s very basic – and count. He brought up my uncles my aunties and my Mum.   He worked really hard throughout his life. All the things that he managed to invest, he had to sell when my grandma had kidney disease and she had dialysis. So it was really important to educate my mum as a way of giving her opportunities they did not have and lift her above the hardships of poverty.

AH: When you were a certain age, your mum decided to work abroad?

RA: She was originally a nurse in the Philippines in a local hospital. When I was about 11 or 12 – I was still in primary school I remember – she left for Oman first. She spent about three years in Oman before she came to the UK. And that’s the reason I became close to my aunty and to my granddad. I felt like they were the ones who cared for me. At one point my mum was talking, and she said: ‘When I had to leave I had to kill a part of my heart because I wouldn’t be able to survive’. It’s as if you almost have to forget that you have a child but then you are doing this for your child, really.

AH: How often did you see your mum when she was away working?

RA: She’d probably come once every two years.

AH: But you spoke to her on the phone?

RA: I spoke to her on the phone. Growing up, I was really surrounded by lovable people anyway. I think when my mum was away, I was more vocal about how much I love her. I’m shy face to face.

AH: All this work that you mother was doing was with the goal of being able to bring you to England. She had you in mind all the time she was away from you. She was working to open your life chances and give you different possibilities.

RA: You would have thought that it’s the person who is left who is lonely – but I think it’s much, much lonelier to leave. You don’t want to leave and risk losing the most important people in your life. She would say that sometimes she would call, and she knew I was sick, and in the hospital, and it was so hard for her because her work is to care for the sick.

AH: ‘Names’ is not a poem that takes the easy way out. One of the patients is misdiagnosed and dies.

RA: Yup.

AH: He is assessed in A&E. That figure of the nurse in ‘Names’ also represents your mother and represents many nurses who are struggling to maintain links with home, in a working environment which gives them a three-minute lunch break. It’s not a sugar candy and roses poem by any means, but it’s a poem that seems to be saying that by identifying and connecting with your identity – in your case, your identity as someone who grew up in the Philippines and whose parents grew up in the Philippines – you find yourself. And it’s really about making an honest connection with your own identity to give you strength to go forward.

RA: With the patient who died, it was John Moore-Robinson. He was actually recorded in the latest Staffordshire Hospital scandal. As a result of that, there was a report that came out called the Francis Report. It was an inquiry. So many patients died at that hospital. ‘Names’ is an honest interpretation of our struggle as nurses.

AH: Your poems also address some of the racism migrant workers can face. You write about having to shorten names and simplify names and anglicise names.

RA: I am careful about showing in my poems that I have been attacked by racism – because I want to celebrate resilience, hope and goodness despite bad things. Sometimes it just comes out and I want to delete it, but I can’t. Then it has to be there. The poem is telling me it has to be there. A brave writer is someone for me who can look unblinkingly at the truth.

AH: If we don’t say when people have treated us wrongly, if we don’t bear witness to that, then we are allowing them to continue.

RA: Definitely.

AH: It is important and courageous that you bear witness to these very difficult things in your work.

RA: I guess what I am trying to do is have some subtle hints. But at the moment I am just writing as I remember, then reading it. If that is how your brain wants you to write or how your body wants you to write, then let it be. Because I believe as writers we are our whole body. Holistically we know how to write and what to write and sometimes we just need to let the poem come out.

Alice: Let it have its energy and its truth.

roma and alice photo
Romalyn Ante and Alice Hiller the morning of the interview.

Roma: Yes, exactly.

 

Romalyn Ante is currently practising as a counsellor within the NHS, working with children and adolescents, while writing her first collection.

Her pamphlet Rice and Rain won the 2018 Saboteur Award and can be purchased via V Press.

Primers 3 can be purchased via Nine Arches Press.

Romalyn Ante co-founded the online journal harana poetry, for poets and poems who resist singleness of tongue and thought, with Kostya Tsolákis.   Alice Hiller is the Reviews Editor.   Our first issue will launch in February 2019 at www.haranapoetry.com

‘saying the difficult thing’ interviews 2019

If I have taken one thing from 2018, it is the deepening of my belief that each of us needs to speak out on what matters. We also need to listen – and support others in being heard.   It is therefore a joy to announce that Shivanee Ramlochan has generously agreed to be the first interviewee of my ‘Saying the Difficult Thing’ project, which will be launching in January 2019.

Shivanee-Ramlochan
Photo by Marlon James

The project will run all year on this blog, to resist silence, and enable change.   Known throughout the world, Shivanee Ramlochan is an inspirational poet, editor, blogger, enabler and activist based in Trinidad. Their first collection Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting was published by Peepal Tree in 2017.

Each interview will ask the featured poet to explore some of the ‘difficult things’, their work addresses. Our conversations will touch on personal biography, political consciousness, and creative and aesthetic strategies, using quotes from the poet’s work to bring their words to the reader.

The first ten ‘saying the difficult thing’ interviewees will all be women or female-identifying poets, to counter the ways in which both society, and the family, have historically conspired to silence women’s voices.   Known, established poets will alternate with voices beginning to publish and make themselves heard. Interviews will feature links to published works, performances and reviews as appropriate, and the conversations will be conducted live, in person, if the poet is in the UK, or via Skype.

Shivanee Ramlochan’s interview will be posted in January 2019, along with the list of the remaining nine initial interviewees. We will ask everyone to share the text of each interview through social media. Together we can link round the world in changing awareness about the ‘difficult things’ which need to be said – and heard – throughout 2019.

Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting

 

 

From my 32 year old mouth, a terrified 8 year old whispered ‘Don’t make me’ : alice hiller on ‘saying the difficult thing’ in her work – and life.

Performing, and writing, generate anxiety. It is as inevitable as adrenaline. You worry if your work is original. Does it communicate? How will it will be received? For those of us who explore difficult material – there is also conflict. We fear, or have been warned off, distressing our audiences. But we also know, from personal experience, the greater dangers of remaining silent.

The recent launch of The Dizziness of Freedom by Bad Betty Press, brought this dilemma home to me. By virtue of their strength, elements within the material were difficult to bear. But the searing, fierce, sometimes painfully funny performances by poets from this anthology responding to mental health, resolved many of my concerns – through their ability to transform creatively a raw subject matter into work no one could ignore.

Dean Atta gave us depression in formal mourning clothes in ‘No Ascension’. Rachel Nwokoro made OCD the logical response to growing up queer, short-sighted, and female in a Nigerian/London household in ‘School Days’. And then it was Joelle Taylor’s turn to raise her hand above her head like a pistol – and proclaim an only half-laughing “trigger warning”. She told the audience, with absolute seriousness, if you feel the trigger, you hold the gun – and the power is yours.

Joelle Taylor’s blistering performance – of work about her own experience of having been raped as a child, and its aftermath – bore out her words. I was deeply impacted by hearing her, as someone who, like Joelle, was raped in childhood.   But I was also strengthened. And I jolted home on the train feeling so much less alone in the poems, and memoir, I am creating on this subject.

Joelle Taylor

When I write, or perform, poems about my own experiences of sexual abuse in childhood, I question my right to bear witness on a topic which people may feel disturbed by – no matter how much care I take to engender agency and safety within the work. From past experiences at live readings, and with contacts made through this blog and twitter, I know that there many of us out here. Either we have our own histories of sexual abuse in childhood, or we are connected to people who do, simply as a consequence of the widespread nature of this crime.

But I have found that it is this same group – my group –  who can be most relieved to hear, or read, my work. We discover within it forms of verbal and imagistic play which we recognise as making comprehensible an experience which is difficult to speak of, even in a private or therapeutic conversation.

While my poems appear simple, operating largely through layered imageries, and using direct, accessible language, it took more than a decade of creative experimentation in prose, then poetry, to find out how to write them. Before even getting going, I needed nearly a decade of psychotherapy to begin to able to articulate and resolve what had happened to me, and thereby gain enough separation from the sexual abuse to exercise a measure of creative agency.

I was already 32, with sons of 14 and 8, and researching a PhD at University College London, when I first met the psychotherapist to whom my GP referred me in order to discuss my troubled childhood and adolescence. I had recently discovered legal evidence of other harmful actions, which my abuser had taken concurrently to the abuse in the mid 1970s. This gave me the spur to open up a part of my earlier life which had always seemed too devastating to re-connect with.

I can still see that murky, grey November afternoon when I stood on a doorstep in Earls Court in London, feeling more numb than scared.   After a few moments, the grey-haired, soberly dressed therapist opened the front door of the apartment block to me, and led me up a dark stairwell, and along a narrow hallway, into her consulting room. Small, lined with books, it looked out onto the grey backs of other houses.

I had been confined to a similarly view-less room when hospitalised for anorexia aged 13.   That period of my life, during which I had first received psychiatric care, was one the psychotherapist asked me to discuss, along with the events that had caused me to stop eating as a teenager. I gave her a factual, slightly detached summary of my childhood, including my father’s death when I was eight, and our subsequent move from Brussels to Wiltshire in 1972.

And then she dropped the bomb. She said You’ll have to go back there.

From my 32 year old mouth, a terrified 8 year old whispered Don’t make me.

At that moment, with the light falling, and the darkness seeming to press its way in through the net curtains of the consulting room, a third person was present with us – ashamed, dirty, frightened, barely able to make a sound.

For twenty-four years I had kept this hurt child locked away inside me. Inaccessible, and silenced, her only medium of expression had been my regular, terrifying nightmares, which made me, and continues to make me on occasion, fearful of sleeping.

When our first session was up, I found my way down the stairs, and out onto the street. I was shocked – and deeply shaken. After I got home, time started to run in parallel. I was a mother, feeding my sons, asking them about their school day. I was also a cold, scared little girl, who wanted to curl up and lie absolutely still under heavy blankets.

That same night, I dreamt I was standing alone, in darkness, on the edge of a shingle beach. The stones shelved steeply down into navy blue water, the colour of a silk petticoat my abuser sometimes wore. With the pebbles sliding, and giving way, I stumbled forward into the sea. I was immediately out of my depth. All round me – dark, chilled water, and the pink-orange whiskery antennae of shrimp, touching my skin, entering my mouth, going between my teeth. I smelt a distinctive, fishy smell that I recognised from before.

The following week, with the psychotherapist’s support, I connected the dream with the textures, and colour, of my abuser’s slippery pubic hair, when I was forced to put my face in her aroused genital area. Our work of articulating my experience, and slowly, slowly, finding some degree of healing, was underway.

Many years later, I came to understand that the imagery within my poems could operate as a transmitter of meaning in the same way that the shrimp whiskers had. Back in 1996, the dreams simply intensified as we worked more deeply.  I continued the practice I had already evolved of writing them down, to separate them from myself, and gain some sense of control.

I was simultaneously trying to research and write up my funded PhD, be a partner to my husband, and raise our two sons as best I could. The dreams offered me a space to re-engage very deeply with my childhood experiences of sexual abuse, while also granting a degree of safety in the other parts of my life, where I needed to continue to function for the well-being of our family.  My poems now offer this for other people.

There was always a backlog of material, but I would print out two copies of each dream, and then bring them to my therapy session, so that the psychotherapist and I could respond to and interpret them together – in much the same way that I did the texts which I was writing about for my academic research. The difference was that the psychotherapist would then channel my responses to the imagery that my dreams had generated.

Although it was a slow and halting progress, which invariably left me devastated for several hours after each session, the dreams helped me locate feelings which I had not been able to experience at the time of the abuse because they were too dangerous. They also gave me a language in which to speak about the regular anal rapes, the implement used to effect them, and the emotional impact of living within the climate of secrecy, shame and fear both during the abuse, and afterwards as a teenager.

Heart-breakingly, as the psychotherapy was reaching a measure of resolution late in 2000, my husband Falcon was diagnosed with terminal cancer. For the next 14 months I cared for him full-time, in and out of hospital. After his death in 2002, my priority was to put life back together for our sons, then both in their teens.

Losing Falcon additionally led me to re-engage with the death of my own father when I was 8, which had been the precipitating factor for the penetrative phase of the sexual abuse. Through the Royal Free, I received further counselling. The more I took on board how much what had happened in my childhood had hurt me, the more I realised the need to try and change awareness around the crime of sexual abuse in childhood.

In 2007, once my younger son had left for university, I began to ask if I could find a way of articulating what had happened to me creatively, with all the personal risk this entailed. With younger my son away during term times, and his brother working outside London, I could afford to risk laying myself more open to my past. I was also fortunate to have formed a new, deeply supportive relationship, with the man who later became my second husband, which also helped sustain me.

My first attempt at writing took the form of a novel, which I worked on for seven years, while also working, and undergoing surgeries for ovarian cancer, diagnosed in 2011. The gynaecological surgeries had the effect of opening up more tissue memories of the abuse – a common response according to my surgeon. Although very difficult to bear, this extra layer of memory ultimately hardened my resolve to continue to agitate creatively for change.

Having always been a hungry reader, and previously been a features journalist, the novel initially seemed a good way to explore my story.  I could see its scenes, and hear its voices, and I valued the ability to tell a longer story, and show my narrator at multiple ages, alone and refracted through others.   But then as time went on, it began to feel as if I was working with thick gloves – speaking through a ‘character’.

I came to believe, for political, as well as personal reasons, that I needed to bear witness directly to my own experiences.  At the same time, as I wrote towards the novel’s climax, I found the scenes breaking themselves into shorter and shorter fragments, due to the power, and difficulty, of the material, and the need to contain and offset it within white space.

From here it was only a small step into poetry. Not knowing quite how to negotiate this new terrain, I signed up for Pascale Petit’s final workshop course at the Tate, in conjunction with the Marlene Dumas exhibition. Pascale’s encouragement, and that of poets on the course including Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Seraphima Kennedy, when I shared my draft work, told me that I had found where I needed to be – and set me on the path of developing my craft, and honing my voice as a poet.

I have since taken classes at The Poetry School, and Spread the Word, and was lucky to be awarded a year-long Jerwood Arvon mentorship with Pascale Petit, which also gave me the opportunity to collaborate on poems with fellow mentees Romalyn Ante, Seraphima Kennedy, Yvonne Reddick and Rachel Burns.

The poems may contain refractions of grooming, sexual abuse, and my troubled teenage years as a bisexual girl trying to find her identity after same-sex abuse – but I see them as jewelled musical boxes. They can be opened up, and allowed to play their harshly beautiful, sometimes shocking tunes – but they do so with all the resourcefulness and surprises of precise, beautifully made objects. When the song is done, and the tiny dancers have stopped revolving, the poem-boxes can then be closed down again until they are next needed, whether by myself, or another reader.

Although the materials at the poems’ hearts are given the resolutions of form and imagery, they nonetheless retain the danger, and terror of what happened to me as a child, which I re-experience every time I work on them. Without this, they could not do their work of speaking out on behalf of all those sexually abused as children – to help change how people perceive this global crime.

Sharon Olds : Trauma and the Secreted Self

 

How can art made in the present re-engage with past experience? The question has a particular urgency for works responding to severe trauma – because their task is to bring into the reader’s domain material that may seem incomprehensible, and therefore alienating.

Sharon Olds signs up for this challenge in ‘How It Felt’ – published in the April issue of Poetry. [1] The poem’s business is the severe beatings experienced in the first twelve years of the speaker’s life, when “my breasts-to-be/ accordion-folded under the skin of my chest”.

In a similar way to how Fiona Benson’s translation of rape in ‘[Zeus] Anatomical Dolls’[2], conjures “details under their pants you wouldn’t believe” – Olds’ description confers a de-familiarising strangeness on the pre-pubescent body, and through this lays down a marker for the qualities of resistance and survival that ‘How it Felt’ explores.

Organised into four continuous free verse sentences – respectively 12, 5, 5, and 13 lines long – ‘How It Felt’ opens with gestures of folding and unfolding as the speaker states “Even if I still had the clothes I wore,/ the clothes would take off before my mother / climbed the stairs towards me: [….] I think I could not get back to how/ it felt.”

The clothes themselves form Proustian receptacles of memory – a marvellous “glassy / Orlon[3] sweater”, smocked, sashed dresses, and the “cotton / underwear like a secret friend.” Registering the innocence of the child who wore them, the clothes also bear out the resonance of even the smallest details in childhood, whether good, or bad.

‘How It Felt’s second sentence questions whether the difficulty of return hinges on the changes brought about by the gap of years between ‘then’ and ‘now’, or the alterations effected by each beating.

 

I study the stability
of the spirit – was it almost I who came back
out of each punishment,
back to a self which had been waiting, for me,
in the cooled-off pile of my clothes?

The fracturing recognised as inherent to trauma is here posited as a strategy of survival – as if the clothes themselves anchor their wearer to the upper world no matter where her naked body may have been taken by her mother.

Having gifted both reader, and speaker, the ‘safe place’ of the “cooled-off pile” from which to inhabit the action, the poem then drops down into its core, which is held within the third sentence.

As for the
condition of being beaten, what
was it like: going into a barn, the animals
not in stalls, but biting and shitting, and
parts of them on fire?

Where better to site the betrayal that is an assault by a parent on a child than in the farmyard – traditionally the source of life-giving nourishment? With a terrifying doubleness, which embodies a world where all safe boundaries have melted, the animals are both abuser and abused – beater and the beaten. Because we cannot determine whether the “biting” and the “shitting” figure the acts of desecration and violation of the beating, or the terrified attempts at self-defence of the child/animal/victim, meaning oscillates in a moment of continuous horror.

After making a form of expression for the experience of being severely beaten – by holding it within a sequence of imagery which bears witness and makes it accessible to a wider audience – the poem concludes by working towards a final thirteen line sequence of tentative redemption.

Having the speaker check herself “10 fingers, 10 toes”, and also “whatever I had where we were / supposed to have a soul”, the poem shows this act of self-cognisance, and bodily reclaiming, as the gateway to the child’s final, hesitating, speculation that “in some / tiny chamber my mother could not / enter – or did not enter – I had not been changed.”

Veteran excavator of personal history, Olds in this poem speaks beyond herself to the millions, past and present, attacked as defenceless children. She offers them a form of language which has the capacity to interrogate, and illuminate, the “ground” of their being – and still find a safe way home.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/146221/how-it-felt

[2] published in the Spring issue of Poetry Review

[3] a durable, synthetic fibre, introduced during the 1950s, capable of holding its shape, and taking richly coloured dyes.

 

Our launch line up – 4th November 6pm at the Poetry Cafe

Anna Kisby is a poet to follow – her work is as delicious to consume as it is fierce in its energy and critiques. Anyone with £5.00 to spare should invest it in ‘All the Naked Daughters’ from Against the Grain and buy themselves the privilege of spending time with a deeply interesting, original mind whose thought enacts itself in visceral, radiant close-up.

Art as hope

Last Saturday I spent two hours in a Word Factory workshop with writer and community artist Dave Lordan.  He spoke about the ways in which his online podcasts and videos are widening the access base of his work.  16,000 people have so far logged onto a recent filmed poem – as opposed the few hundred who might buy a book.

Hearing Dave speak made me feel as if walls round the houses of art were dissolving like barley sugar, allowing work to reach hungry people who would never experience it through the established channels.

For someone who wants to change understanding around sexual abuse through the art I make, this was a powerful experience.  Right now the world seems like an increasingly harsh place. Being able to connect with people who have the potential to be informed or nourished by what you have to give is good news.

Below is a photograph of ‘Humanity’, a sculpture which my father-in-law, the sculptor Oscar Nemon, made to commemorate victims of the Holocaust.  They included his own mother, brother and grandmother.  It was unveiled in 1967 in Osijek, in Croatia, from where they and their fellow citizens were deported.

Nemon created ‘Humanity’ as a piece of public work and an act of resistance to genocide.  He wanted to bear witness to what had been taken from the town, and the world. It was a composition that he sketched and worked on for two decades. Creating the sculpture sustained him through dark years. It sustains everyone who stands beside the mother as she lifts her child to the future, hoping for better times.

If you want to know more about Oscar Nemon, his website is http://www.oscarnemon.org.uk

Heredity Park.

Two poems about anorexia

 

For many years I wanted to write about anorexia. But every door handle I turned came off in my hands, and I was left on the outside. Eventually, poetry gave me a way in.

When I stopped eating in 1977 there was no social media or internet. I hadn’t heard of the condition. After nearly four and a half years of being sexually abused, I made the decision to refuse food in order to take control of my entrances and exits.

Although I wouldn’t have been able to say this, I also believed that my body had forfeited the right to be fed as a result of what it had participated in. To starve it would be to clean myself.

There was additionally a pleasure in saying no. I remember liking food with defined edges like oatcakes and fruits with hard borders like oranges – as if by eating them I could grow my own rind.

The decision came upon me all at once when we were staying in a rented holiday apartment near Stranraer in Scotland at Easter. It was entirely white and modern. Outside there were deep green pine trees and blue lochs. It seemed as if the world had become a different place and I could choose my own path through it.

My feeling of empowerment was heightened by the copy of History Today that Mrs Webb, my teacher, had lent me. An adult publication, it made no concessions for nearly teenage readers.   I remember holding it in my hands and thinking ‘I can follow this. I am someone.’

To enact my decision, when we went shopping for food I bought myself two flat stick figures of a man and a woman. They were facing each other, connected by his peg penis that slotted into her wooden midriff.

The first thing I refused to eat after buying the tiny 2cm dolls was white mashed potato. I can still see the undefined, helpless mound it made on my plate.

Over the next six months, my weight dropped to four and a half stone and fine down grew all over my body, which began to resemble that of a concentration camp victim. When I went back to boarding school for the autumn term, the nurse weighed me daily.

I used to get up at five in the morning, unable to sleep for hunger, and alternately pace the wooden boards of the single room I had been moved to, and get down on my bony knees to pray. I felt I had been given a direct line to God, who would soon be lowering the ladder up which I could climb to Heaven.

It was only when I was admitted to hospital, at my school’s insistence, that I discovered that there could be a way out which didn’t involve my death.

 

The two draft poems which follow are designed to be printed one after another so that ‘salvation’ lies under ‘almanac’ as a reminder of all the bodies of all the children and young people who starve themselves.

 

almanac

that April when I first
refused her I shut
my mouth
to mashed potatoes

we went in June
to France for half-term
at her insistence I
ate pintade

like a raptor
she flew
at my first hairs
my new breasts

come August my skeleton
walked backwards
she watched me
from her deckchair

that September I spoke
with God directly
soon I’d step off the school
scales straight to heaven

the headmistress sent
me home in October
hospital pills melted
my mind like tallow

come November
I ate from plates
as big as straw hats
when Dr Daly said

 ‘Alice, you’re not your mother’
like fruit which the knife opens

it peeled off my old self

———-

anorexia nervosa

I have no place

at the table

I erase
until           all

I

am         is

gone

 

Pintade means guinea fowl in French.

 

Thanks to Ellen Crannitch’s ‘Fresh Approaches’ workshop members at the Poetry School to whom I read these drafts.

Travelling back to my Dad

Like many people who live through sexual abuse as a child, for many years I was deeply ashamed of myself. This shame had the effect of cancelling most of my memories of my dad, who died before the abuse began. It was as if by blanking out his love for me – I could keep it clean and separate from the child I became after his death.

Until I began to work with a psychotherapist in my thirties, all that came up when I thought of my dad was a few brief glimpses of him, amid a general blankness. Though our conversations helped give them definition, they were still isolated mountain peaks rising from thick, grey mist.

It was only when I began to make album without photos that I began to see the hills and fields of our daily life as father and daughter that the mist had been covering. This work is still on-going.

I am working on a poem about a photo my grandmother kept beside her bed. My dad holds me on my christening day. I haven’t seen the photo for thirty years, but I can still see his smile. It radiates joy and pride. Another poem is about when he came to my bedroom window early one holiday morning, with a creel full of shrimps fished on the beach for our tea.

When I draft and redraft, it is somewhere between sewing and darning. As I find the words, I join myself back together, thread by thread, stitch by stitch.

Last June, shortly before the Brexit vote, I made a daytrip to Brussels, where we were living at the time of my father’s death in 1972. I was eight then.

I took the Metro from the Eurostar the church where his funeral was held. It was a weekday and empty. Where had been a mass of flowers and noise and people, was quiet, maybe a little shabby.

Immediately I walked up the nave, I had a sensation of being surrounded by warmth and safety. By making this pilgrimage, forty-four years later, I somehow set free the part of myself which had locked away what my dad’s love actually felt like.

Sitting in the pew I last sat in with his coffin right in front of me, close enough to touch, I became again my daddy’s Aly. I was a whole child, as well as an adult making a life as best I could in the aftermath of severe trauma.

That memory has served as a compass ever since. It informed my decision to share my own process of self-recovery through writing, in this blog. My journey is one that many people who have been sexually abused in childhood need to find a way to make for themselves, in order to reclaim the identities which should have been theirs from the start.

Below is ‘odyssey’, which I’m still writing about this experience.

odyssey

too high for my hands
you move in your orbit
lost under lilies
your loved face hides

daddy if I heard your voice
would you know me
hoist white heart sails
my ship of matchsticks

eurostar to brussels
slide into the platform
shut nave turn your key
rapportes-moi où j’étais

daisy june morning
jackhammer november
jelly down crusher rocks
I will shoot through you

 

*

church roof apex
tree song hymn place
jesus hang velvet dress
tears of not crying

bodies packed like chocolates
air of perfume prayer books`
before here always Sunday
now the lord is my shepherd

 tight-rope forwards
wind gift dips under me
oak gleam petal flowers
gold glitter handles

 big voice vicar
goodbye daddy
inside long box
quiet as pencil

 no more wheelchair man
no more floppy legs
no more electric motor fast on grass
no more run beside you

 from me night gone
iron lung breathing
wibbly drawing intensive care
you in bed from sideways

 DADDY SAYS HELLO ALY
I can write better
home before morning break
mummy on green sofa

spray again belly self
float out wind kiss
sea-saw arm fall
soft cotton daddy shoulders

 tip toe bristle feet
hairs read vibration
set down wet sand
six-eye swivel

 silver water wind ruffle
jump splish splosh
watch out slippy green
sea smell gull song

 heavy in big water net
me with daddy pushing
tired legs salt sting
mermaid up cliff carried

 

lie along nursery dark
sheets shiver hot nylon
baby brother sleep tight
scare-me shapes move closer

 big hand push back fringe
kind fingers stroke soft
lighthouse daddy strong as rock
here to save your aly

 

*

in dead body church
warm shawl cuddle
kindness thick as soup
come to feed this kitten

 

With thanks to Tim Dooley, Catherine Smith, John Mee and Emma Mackilligin who have all read this in various drafts.

Kicking off the year of #UNshame

When you’re fifty-two, you don’t expect to get lucky. Life has given you enough knocks to know to take it steady. The day I heard I’d been short-listed for the Jerwood-Arvon Poetry Mentorship – I didn’t believe it.

When I got to the interview, I had forty-five minutes to talk about my work to poet Pascale Petit and Joe Bibby from Arvon. I told them I wanted to change awareness around sexual abuse in childhood through the poems in albums without photos.

With every word I said, the world around me seemed to get larger, and more full of possibility. Not just for myself, but for other people making lives, as I am, in the aftermath of sexual abuse.

Back home, I sat stunned, holding the dog, and not seeing the TV. I could hardly take it in when Joe Bibby rang the next day to say I’d been selected.  My year of #UNshame was kicking off.

There was a week to send Pascale Petit twenty new poems, and get the beloved dog taken care of, before the initial retreat with the other eleven mentees at Totleigh Barton in Devon on 13 March 2017.

Irrespective of age, everyone seemed as shell-shocked as me when we wound our way through the tight, green Devon lanes. Waiting in a cup in the hills was the white walled, thatched manor house which we would make our collective home for the next five days.

Our welcome cream tea was served at a long refectory table in the wooden beamed dining hall which doubled as workshop. Every footstep we took, floorboards seemed to creak around us.

It was as if the house was bound together with threads of sound. In the days that followed, as poets, novelists and playwrights ate and talked, and work-shopped and walked together, it came to seem as if we were also becoming connected to each other by our shared hopes, experiences and ambitions.

On our first night, we had to introduce what we were working on. Under the rafters of the great barn, I explained that my collection of poems, album without photos, brought together things which couldn’t be seen or recorded any other way.

I said I wanted to document the process of being groomed as a child, and the sexual abuse that followed, but also the life that I have made, and am making, in its wake.

On our last night, we had to perform five minutes of our work to each other. My opening poem, ‘december night’ was a summoning to my child self to be with us at the reading.

The reaction I saw on everyone’s faces let me know that she was indeed with us. I read what I had written about being groomed on the night train to Victoria, about how it felt after my dad died, about what a school run was like when it took you back to the bed in which you would be abused.

My child self stayed with us as I finished with a poem about starving myself to freedom. I had also spoken for other voiceless children for whom I want to bear witness as I chart my way through my mentorship year towards the completion and publication of album without photos.

 The evening, and the week, ended on a note of euphoria generated by the news that the novelists’ mentor, Jacob Ross, had won the inaugural Jhalak prize. We couldn’t believe that he had chosen to sit listening to us all read when he could have been at the awards ceremony in London.

It may have been raining outside, but Jacob’s win filled the vast space of the barn with applause and exuberance until it seemed as if we were swimming in champagne with a fireworks display of flashbulbs saluting him.